Keep Talking Kanye: An Architect’s Defense of Kanye West

  • 10 Oct 2013
  • by
  • Articles Editor's Choice
being interviewed by Zane Lowe for BBC One.

I may be in the minority among my peers, but I want Kanye West to keep talking. Despite the many who despise, disparage or dismiss him—unwilling or unable to properly digest what he’s saying, consuming bite-sized quotes and late-night parodies instead of engaging him in intellectual discourse—I want him to keep talking.

As a black man and an architect (one of about 2,000 in this country who can claim membership to both those groups), I am particularly cognizant of the Truman Show wall that exists between architects and recognition, and between black architects and acceptance. West’s recent interview with Zane Lowe administered reflections on design, architecture and the creative process in a dosage too high for most to swallow. I am tripping over myself with fear and excitement at the prospect of having such a powerful mouthpiece for a generation of black architects and designers who share his frustration and connect with his message.

Why? Because when Kanye West talks, people listen.

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Architecture is both a profession with an illustrious history and a discipline with a distinguished tradition. Our biggest challenge has always been, as Philip Johnson explained in his interview with Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, that we are so desperate to have our beautiful creations built that we are willing to do it for almost nothing.

This completely contradicts Mr. West’s expressed desire to see “people make things as dope as possible and by default make money from it.” For architects, however, as opposed to rappers, it’s not as easy to sell out. It’s much more common for us to be usurped by tangential industries, like construction management and BIM consultancy, than to receive royalties on top-selling, radio-ready designs. The architect has become an afterthought; a devalued, overpriced luxury item, accessible only to the privileged few.

Black people in America have made improbable strides forward in the perceptibly short timespan since the Civil Rights movement; cracking the surface of political ceilings, directing the pace of popular culture, and leaving permanent dents in the body of major professions. Architecture remains an Old Boys’ Club.

The recent appeal to the Pritzker Prize committee on behalf of Denise Scott Brown gives a bit of insight on the established attitude towards women in the profession. The black community, through the efforts of groups like NOMA (The National Organization of Minority Architects), has long sought acceptance in the same arenas—awards recognition, faculty appointments, employment, and student enrollment. Whereas women have made gains in each of the above, blacks are still left behind struggling to put together numbers large enough to be relevant.

In various ways, at various times and in various forums, the questions of why this is the case and how to change it have been asked. The consensus opinion points past discrimination and towards early education. If there are no role models in architecture to look up to (in the public sphere or in everyday life), or no encouragement from parents to harness their creative potential, children are more likely to pursue medicine or law, sports or entertainment. Architecture won’t make you rich or cool.

Kanye West, 2006. Image © Paul Smith / Featureflash, via shutterstock.com

Enter Kanye. Now comes the shift from talking to ourselves to talking to the world. Now black architects have a fighting chance at influencing the public consciousness in the way black artists, musicians, politicians and athletes have. Now the architecture of the hip-hop generation can take its rightful place alongside hip-hop music, dance, art and design. All this is made possible through the transposition of discourse from the academic halls of universities and conferences into the realm of Twitter, blogs, YouTube and other platforms of his choosing.

Some will suggest that direct engagement with the profession presents the best chance at easing his angst—that architects will be much more open to collaboration than fashion designers. By all accounts Mr. West has been doing that. The work that he has done through DONDA and in collaboration with 2×4 and OMA is more than some design professors have in their portfolios. He has been connecting with graduate architecture students at Columbia University according to a report on CC:. Yet, none of this got any real attention until he began talking about architecture to The New York Times and BBC Radio One.

Kanye West’s seven-screen pavilion / OMA. Image © Philippe Ruault, Courtesy of OMA

Other affirmative actions, such as exclusively hiring black architects to design his offices and residences, and encouraging friends in the entertainment and sports industries to do the same, would have a phenomenal impact. (Imagine MTV Cribs showcasing the work of talented black architects instead of McMansion developers.) But that would only elicit short-term gains and subvert the competitive process necessary for good design.

What gets me most excited is the vision of a whole new generation of kids personally inspired to explore all aspects of their creativity; who have discovered the unlimited potentials of the architectural discipline because they listened to something Kanye West said with passion and conviction.

But they are not the only ones listening. We all are. Many may not hear the depth and complexity of his meaning. Many will find it easier to point and laugh at a Jimmy Kimmel skit than to catalyze change. There remain us few—a marginalized subset of a marginalized profession—who are listening and are hungry for more.

Sekou Cooke is a Jamaican-born architect, licensed in New York and California, and a former assistant professor at Syracuse University’s School of Architecture. He is currently pursuing a post-professional degree in architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

Image via shutterstock.com

Cite: Sekou Cooke. "Keep Talking Kanye: An Architect’s Defense of Kanye West" 10 Oct 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed 02 Sep 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=435952>

45 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    If you wanted a role model for black designers and architects, I would think it would be someone like David Adjaye, not a rapper with an IQ of about 12…

    • Thumb up Thumb down +32

      Architects are not mainstream. The truth is most kids will never hear of David Adjaye. But with the help of a mega cultural figure introducing them to architecture, it may lead them to discover minority designers like Adjaye. I think this article is pointing out that Kanye has the potential to act as a gateway.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +6

      The issue is not him being a role model…he doesn’t have the necessary education to design just yet. Many don’t. However, his enthusiasm to learn and to collaborate music and sound, to aspire to achieve brilliant design, via fashion, music, or architecture is commendable. That pursuit of design is definitely something more people in the country should follow suit towards. He’s won 21 grammys…he’s doing something right. As for his personal relationships and issues with paparazzi, I can’t comment on that, I don’t know him personally and has nothing to do with his music or design pursuits which can be commented on. You have no evidence to prove an IQ 12 only what you see on TV. Could be 6? I don’t know him and cannot make those statements.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      Only a man with an IQ of 12 would rate Kanye’s IQ a 12.. He’s one of the most intelligent and creative artists of the century, have some respect!

      • Thumb up Thumb down +1

        he doesn’t write his music on his own. less than 50% of his music is actually written by him

      • Thumb up Thumb down -2

        Moises, most well known architects design actually draw far less than 50% of their designs, I would bet.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      I believe Joe and Arek have responded exactly as I would. 1. Kids don’t know who Adjaye is. They know who Kanye is. 2. Anyone who has listened to Kanye speak knows he is incredible high on the IQ scale.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      Abroad, your dismissive and juvenile comment says much more about your IQ than about Kanye’s. thanks for showing us all who you are.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +1

      YES! And who cares about the architect’s race anyway? Honestly if the most beautiful building in the world was designed by the worlds ugliest man no one would care. Just like no-on cares about your race…

      • Thumb up Thumb down -1

        It seems like for some people its an attempt at a race victory rather than progression of the profession. I will also say that I dont want to be associated with a field that Kanye has somehow inserted himself in just because he is a rapper. We are not singers/song writers and he is not an architect. Im waiting for him to say that because hes black, he has more style/design sense than architects… what a waste of time to hear this nonsense.

  2. Thumb up Thumb down +4

    I think this article has good intentions, but it is missing the mark and intentions that Kanye advocates. The focus seems to be specifically about black empowerment and helping the youth recognize the potentials of design and architecture, instead of the cliche norms of being a rapper or sports figure (which is a good message). However, Kanye’s approach and perspective is about bringing the highest potential of ideas within a community of like minded and passionate people, no matter your race, age, wealth, or sex. His message is clear that he wants to stimulate the design community as much as possible, and the fact that Architecture is within this community that he is trying to uphold, I find to be a positive and respectable gesture. Platforms that allow positive stimulation of ideas and the prospect of the future of design only help our cause…whether its DONDA, ArchDaily, Dezeen, or etc. we are all within the design community trying to expand the minds and potentials of our everyday thinking. I say go for it.

    • Thumb up Thumb down -3

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  3. Thumb up Thumb down -7

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  4. Thumb up Thumb down +8

    1. Did you not just read the article? West is actually brilliant despite how he carries himself in the media eye or how media chooses to put him out there. He was a creative design student at one point in college before he dropped out. Both of his parents were intellects and the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Due to the industry he works in, being pegged intelligent will kill your career unfortunately.

    2. Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes/ N.E.R.D. reached out to Chad Oppenheim to design his resource center in Virginia. Granted Chad isn’t black, but it does show how artists are starting to look more towards Architects when it comes to design projects.

    3. Not to take anything away from David Adjaye, but he’s British. Meaning he’s not black in an American culture being exposed to black children on the regular. Actually, Architects in America aren’t even exposed to children as a whole until high school or college depending on you’re culture or class. Sure there is the Moody/Nolans and Phillip Freelons, whose work HAS been displayed on this site. But they are not getting nearly as much exposure elsewhere as the OMAs and the Peter Eisenmanns.

    I too think Kanye is misunderstood. There is still a huge cultural barrier within the US when it comes to understanding blacks. Many get there idea of the culture via television i.e. BET and random idiot talking heads via some of the news outlets, rather than actually going out and engaging with blacks to see what type of people they really are! Do your own personal research on Kanye West and stop listening to people who haven’t engaged with him on a personal level. Entertainment is what it is, take it at face value.

  5. Thumb up Thumb down +7

    Why is this a race issue at all? What is wrong with a white kid having a black role model and vice-versa? This is a well written, articulate article, but based on one’s view of the world from academia. I work with all races and both genders in my practice, in the real world. No one is complaining about role models. People do their job and if good ascend the ranks and achieve success.

    • Thumb up Thumb down -3

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      • Thumb up Thumb down +8

        Is there not a black president? The color of someone’s skin does not dictate what they can and cannot achieve. There are many poor and uneducated people that aren’t black that are stuck in a cultural hole. People should be encouraged to think that they’re people, not a skin color. I am a person.

  6. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    This is merely lip service to our profession. I understand why people look up to these superstars as role models for one reason or another, but I fear that it is ego in and ego out. Unless you study the history, culture, and disciplinary implications of the profession.

    On your comment about selling out, it is extremely easy to sell out in architecture. Work for a corporate architecture firm for a while and watch your academic visions of building floating buildings and using fancy robotics to design go out the proverbial window.

    All publicity is good publicity, and I

  7. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    This is merely lip service to our profession. I understand why people look up to these superstars as role models for one reason or another, but I fear that it is ego in and ego out. Unless you study the history, culture, and disciplinary implications of the profession, you can’t make claims about what is good or bad.

    On your comment about selling out, it is extremely easy to sell out in architecture. Work for a corporate architecture firm for a while and watch your academic visions of building floating buildings and using fancy robotics to design go out the proverbial window.

    All publicity is good publicity, but most architects are too stuck in their ways to articulate why this particular case is too casual to be taken seriously. We want recognition for our hard work, but it only takes a week to record an album, but it takes longer to make good architecture. The problem is the wrong priorities win out over our interests, created by people like Mr. West, Brad Pitt, Phillip Johnson, and other playboys of their professions.

  8. Thumb up Thumb down +4

    Do you ever listen to his lyrics? What he says about women and society? Proclaiming to be a god (some people don’t believe in god and yet he continues to look past others views)? He is a good rapper, a good pop guy, but the reason he is dismissed is because he’s mean. JayZ had no problem leaving the world of rap, owning teams, and being a part of corporations. Magic Johnson is now an owner of one of the biggest sport franchises in the world. He’s also downgrading your exact mission by saying its easy to crossover. He has no schooling? he has absolutely no background? Architecture is more than an idea, it’s about carrying it out and bringing it to life. Yes, the world of architecture needs to open its arms, but would you hire an arrogant, mean person like Kanye to design something? With all of his ridicule? no. Period. Kanye: “I put the pu**y in a sarcophagus now she claiming that I bruise her esophagus head of the class and she just want a swallow ship I’m living in the future so the present is my past my presence is a present kiss my a**”. Is that a role model, or someone your kids should look up to? Please.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +3

      Role model, yes, for that role, or do you think that role models should be monolithic? If you think this world is ruled strictly by the pious, you are dreaming. Your core has to be good but you have to understand all the provocative and evocative things that make him a success and no matter what lyric of his you spell out, all the people buying his music, unlike you, know what that is all about. They also know the Kanye of the Kimmel and Zane interviews who is urging them to believe in and do combat for themselves, behind the scenes as well as in front of it, while demonstrating that they can succeed on their own terms. You though, are being simply naive.

      • Thumb up Thumb down 0

        Ya, but no. And, children don’t have the intellect to decipher the difference in provocative and evocative things, thats why they’re children. But free feel to bump “drive slow” on the way to the hospital when your lady is in labor. All said in done, I am a hip hopper, so I have been very happy with most his material. And I do buy his albums. All of them. Architecture is different.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      I’m black. I listen to rap. I’ve bought all of Kanye’s albums since The College Dropout (including Yeezus.) I also happen to study Architecture, and I do not, in any way want Kanye to be a part of my profession in the future. It seems like some transient “pet project” he is obsessed with since his best friend Virgil is an architect. I think Kanye needs to stay in his lane, and rappers need to be more conscious in general what their lyrics say about them. There is no way Kanye would be taken seriously in the world of design.

  9. Thumb up Thumb down +12

    When Kanye talks, I have no idea wtf he is talking about.

    • Thumb up Thumb down 0

      Kanye is talking about the glass ceiling.

      Its a real thing, as anyone that is black/brown/woman will contest to.
      But maybe you think its all in our heads, millions of us….

  10. Thumb up Thumb down +13

    Interesting. I listened to all 4 parts of the interview, and while Kanye says some interesting and even true things, I don’t think he’s a particularly good role model and I can see why major design houses would not want to work with him. Here’s why:

    1. It’s not good enough to just be an “ideas person.” It’s great to have a radical idea, but there’s more to design (or anything really) than just having the idea. There is a lot to learned in the implementation and making. It alters our perception and deepens our understanding.

    2. Does he know his history? Hip hop is all about knowing your history, where things come from, the genesis. Sampling is all about history and interacting with it. Same goes for Architecture. Even if you are making a break with history, you have to know why. Otherwise nothing is actually going to be new.

    3. Did he even once use the word ‘we?’ He can definitely name drop with the best of them and talks about collaboration, but used the word ‘I’ so much you would think that he made everything all by himself. Albums are made by lots and lots of artists working together, so is Architecture. I assume he would have to know this, but his rhetoric doesn’t reflect it

    4. He’s a hypocrite, but does he know it? He did Golddigger to ‘get paid’ even though he doesn’t like it. He sells t-shits (if memory serves correctly- plain white t-shirts). Are these things as ‘dope as possible?’ I don’t think that he thinks so

    5. His career is all about ‘raging’ against the system while perpetuating it. His music, Golddigger in particular, is a clear example of this- perpetuating and celebrating gender stereotypes and societal scapegoating. Even the way he talks perpetuates the system as is- he’s just so easy to blow off as empty hot air.

    I’m all for breaking up the Good Old Boy’s Club in Architecture. I think it would do a lot for the industry, but I don’t think that Kanye is the answer.

    • Thumb up Thumb down -2

      In the point you chose to make first, you deliberately and nefariously choose to ignore the effort he has dedicated to the craft. Why then should anyone continue to read you? Just an ideas person? Hid Gladwell 10. 000 hour study, paying out of his pocket, and time, for the Cannes OMA collabo, two Paris Fashion week runway shows to date, and much more, and you still call him “just” an “ideas person”. Yep, for good reason, I choose not to read you further.

  11. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    actually its good to have celebrity people raise the awareness of architecture in the broad general public that don’t normally relate because they are made to feel stupid or have the iq of 12.
    is that not what we want? rather than architecture being for the select few with a higher IQ than 12?

  12. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    Inferiority complex; just messes people’s worldviews.. In Architecture, we think and debate of ideas; not of people creating those ideas, in relation to their racial characteristics? Most artificial and boring category ever. Just be a human, don’t be white, brown, black whatever.. its up to you not the society. If it was Eminem talking about architecture would that be different for you?
    Great example, D.Adjaye, just ask to yourself, why no-one ever even thinks of him as black ? because he simply is not black; if we take the architectural genius away his just a Human Being, speaking and thinking and seeing people like any other decent human being should.

    2nd. architecture has its own modes of engaging the pop-culture; and listening to a pop-celeb speaking about architecture is not one of them. This is just superficial and boring! Arch-daily is degrading.

  13. Thumb up Thumb down -3

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  14. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    This article is missing the point, that kanye is trying to address. Being Black is irrelative!

  15. Thumb up Thumb down +3

    It’s unknown to most architects, which is the absolute truth, that architecture will be doomed one day, and mainly, it is architects’ fault. Because the logic is simple, nothing survives if it keeps the wall around it to distance itself from the rest of the society, who, fortunately, have managed to maintain more consciousness than those people who are involved in the field that is going to extinct. Architecture is a very good example.

    So if any artist likes, designing buildings will be their duty.

  16. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    If the world perceives Kanye as an idiot, why would you want him as your hero? That’d be like idolozing Lindsey Lohan for talking up women in architecture. Just because Kanye’s talking about it doesn’t make it a good thing if the connotations with him are bad. In fact, it could really be retroactive and spiral down the other way. People need to be careful about who they look to and how they’re perceived. You can’t say Kanye’s a genious and expect to be taken seriously even if it may be true. Public opinion of him is too far gone.

    Incidentally, I don’t think anybody is purposely perpetuating the “good old boys club” of architecture. Being a student, my freshmen class was very diverse. Who’s out there stopping minorities from being architects? I see no evidence of this, in fact there are many programs in place to continue the advancements of minorities in architecture school and candidly, I even know of students who are kept around just because they ARE minorities, despite that they are not performing to the standards of the schools. Architecture is a selective field in general, what percentage of white people actually become architects?

  17. Thumb up Thumb down -3

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  18. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Sheng Sun represents the superficial reader that constitutes the cheerful readership of such sketchy texts, because he resides in marginal territory between the architectural image consumption and gimmicky talk submitted as discursively valid. The thinking modality of this territory is comprised of animated preaching of simplistic and outdated methods on social engagement; its perceptual gear is confined to elements which could be easily borrowed and internalized to fuel the Chinese apparatus of plagiarism, or any other undignified design posturing. Blind to any thorough discussion on any interesting and valid topic such as activism/politics/urban planning, this weak agent of preaching will eventually fade into creative lifelessness through plagiaristic self-elimination; reducing the need of my comment. So I urge you to reproduce through binary fission maybe one day you will become a topic for more contentions and thorough writing.

  19. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    It is not necessarely a bad thing that the architectural discipline gets a little cool and fresh advertisement, regardless the person or the content being advertised. As someone said in an earlier comment, architecture tends to be seen as an elite practice, that only a very few can afford, while it should merely be considered as a service for the people.

    Now regarding the actual topic, what is mostly frustrating is that we are all talking about racial, social or design issues, and not actually about what Archdaily is about: ARCHITECTURE.

    Now all the comments bend torwards the subject, but none actually answered the following

    What does Kanie West propose?
    What architecture dles he produce?
    What are his intentions and how and who does he create?

    Does anyone have data on these question

    We would all love to see a neat drawing, a sketch or a cool cut by M. West wouldn’t we?

  20. Thumb up Thumb down -1

    It would be interesting to hear from a designer at Nike, or OMA to the reality of what he is actually “designing.” Much in the same vein of when was the last time Zaha herself ACTUALLY did the design and not some kid fresh out of gradschool, and she said add more curve there.

  21. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    Architects are among the most corny people in the world. And I am one.

    I love hearing architect readers defend architecture like it can’t be penetrated by anyone else but those with degrees in the field.

    I love that Kanye loves design. He’s in it for the long haul.

    When half of you architecture students give up architecture to go into real estate b/c your pay sucked, I guarantee you, Kanye will still be there, going harder than ever.

  22. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    Look, its fine for women to talk about the glass ceiling, but a black person talks about it in relation to the design world, and people get defensive as hell.

    Usually indicates he’s onto something…

    For everyone saying its not necessary to talk about race –

    Race for the privileged class is a story in a newspaper, a blip on a screen. Its theoretical. Race for the underclass is a daily pain and hardship that NEEDS to be talked about. Seriously. It IS more about class than race though, but unfortunately, they are still very related.

    Being black / muslim / brown in the US is not easy, and I live in fucking NYC….

  23. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    Is anyone criticizing Ai Weiwei for doing architecture?

    Why does it matter that Kanye wants to do architecture?
    There are so many great architects that never studied.

    Does anyone care that Tom Ford does architecture? Is it not blaringly obvious that this guy is brilliant and has a punk rock attitude? That sounds like something could work out from that.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +1

      People are upset because of his arrogance. He has no couth. When he says he “is frustrated he’s not taken seriously as a “real designer” and that he plans to move into architecture.”
      “I hang around architects mostly,” he said.
      “I’m working with five architects at a time” – Kanye West

      He is discrediting people who have spent time and energy to make Architecture their life by stating that because he is in the “cicle” of architecture that he should be considered one.

  24. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    Did anyone even watch the “Cruel Summer” film that was shown in the OMA pavilion? It got great reviews….

    Its pretty obvious that Kanye has a strong artistic vision.
    No one is saying Ai Weiwei shouldn’t do architecture, are they?

    There is a very real difference in reaction him, deserves a case study.

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